Anne Rabe, translated by Philip Thorne
Tristan Bates Theatre
The subject matter of East German playwright Anne Rabe's Sunflower House is potentially revelatory, challenging received wisdom about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the state of post-unification Germany to which the majority of Britons subscribe. Unfortunately, the challenging and the revelatory are rendered banal by problematic presentation.
The play concerns a middle-class family living in an East German Plattenbausiedlung, or prefabricated high-rise estate, next door to the Sunflower House, which in 1992 was the site of a riot. Micha, the son (Sam Fordham), is filming a documentary about the estate - and specifically his immediate family, mother Jutta (Jayne Denny) and pregnant sister Klara (Jessica Sedler) - as his audition for film school.
Though Micha has a very specific vision for his film ("Nazi City - a film about my family"), he's unable to stop the story of the Sunflower House riot, as well as revelations about his Stasi informant father, from bleeding through in his subjects' testimony. The metaphor is no less potent for being obvious: Micha repeatedly demands realism and truth, but censors his subjects when their truth diverges from his vision.
Filmmaking, though, is a famously tedious process, and even a theatricalised version of it makes for dull viewing. Micha's camera is real and functional, feeding live to an onstage TV, which necessitates a lot of camera business - adjusting focus, positioning the tripod, angling the thing - which, though performed in character, is purely logistical rather than dramatic.
Documentary filmmaking in particular is a typically static affair, and so Sunflower House is composed largely of people sitting or standing still - forced to remain within the camera's blinkered field of view - and delivering exposition without much action. Displaying the camera's feed on the TV makes for some interesting close-ups and multi-angle views not usually achievable in theatre, but they're still close-ups and multiple angles of static performers prosaically delivering exposition.
To her credit, director Lydia Ziemke fights valiantly to inject some energy and movement into proceedings. Often the filming is not the only action happening onstage (though it is always the focus). In one scene the camera becomes the objective in a game of keep-away between Micha and Klara - Fordham and Sedler are at their most convincing when having fun with the pair's playful sibling rivalry.
Then there are the few camera-free scenes. One, captioned "Advantageous Accidents", proves simultaneously that Rabe is capable of writing action without dialogue, that Jayne Denny - who, despite a strong vocal performance, suffers from a generally uncertain, unfocused physicality - is capable of dramatically engaging economy of movement, and that Ziemke is capable of deft, wry theatricality; but that the talent of everyone involved is fatally fettered by Micha's camera.
Reviewer: Matt Boothman